(RNS) — Does a Trump-era rule protect religious belief of students at public colleges and universities or cause discrimination against some attending them?
The Biden administration’s Education Department has recommended rescinding a portion of the so-called “Free Inquiry Rule” related to that religious freedom debate within institutions of higher education.
“The Department proposes to rescind the regulations because they are not necessary to protect the First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion; have created confusion among institutions; and prescribe an unduly burdensome role for the Department to investigate allegations regarding IHE’s treatment of religious student organizations,” it said in an announcement last month (February).
The Education Department wants to remove portions of the rule about public student religious organizations at some colleges and universities that call for the department to enforce grant conditions related to adherence to First Amendment principles by those groups if they receive a grant from the department or a state-related program.
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The department said it has heard concerns from faith-based and civil rights organizations worried that aspects of the rule could allow discrimination against “vulnerable and marginalized students,” including LGBTQ students, while other faith groups argue those parts of the rule “ensure religious students feel welcome on public college campuses.”
With a deadline of March 24 to respond to the proposal, some organizations and hundreds of individuals have already stated their approval or criticism of the department’s plans.
“Rescinding the harmful Trump rule means students won’t be forced to subsidize clubs that discriminate against them,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement. “It also means colleges won’t be forced to choose between protecting students and losing federal funding, or allowing discrimination against students in order to keep federal financial assistance.”
Her organization has expressed concern that the rule will harm students who are LGBTQ or who are nonreligious or are religious minorities.
When Americans United filed a suit in 2021 on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance against the rule enacted the previous year, it said: “The rule gives religious student clubs the absolute right to use religion to discriminate while still receiving official university recognition and funding.”
The organization agreed to temporarily pause its litigation after the Biden administration announced in August that it intended to remove the portions of the rule that the church-state separation group had challenged.
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Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told Religion News Service his organization plans to submit a formal comment supporting the existing rule.